Follow your animal instincts to keep fit
Acting like an animal is not, in normal circumstances, considered to be a good thing. Few of us aspire to the social habits of gorillas, bears or frogs. Indeed we spend a lot of time subconsciously taming our inner beast, curbing our appetites, trying to behave like civilised human beings.
But while picking fleas off each other and fighting savagely over potential mates might not be desirable traits in the human world, there are other animal habits that we would do well to mimic: the way they move, for example.
Our sedentary lifestyles mean that most of us aren’t using our muscles properly. As small children we squat, crawl and leap around freely, but the older we get the more restricted our moves become and many of our muscles get little action as we sit at desks or in cars, occasionally hitting the gym where we use machines to work on specific muscles rather than the whole body.
Now a new form of fitness, an intense workout based on “primal” movements, such as squatting and crawling, has come to the UK from Australia, where its founder, Nathan Helberg, has been using it for eight years, teaching everyone from special forces to police forces, military, schoolchildren, pensioners and even prisoners to unleash their inner beast.
A former power lifter, he realised that while weights had made some of his muscles very strong, others remained weak and his joints felt vulnerable. So, taking his inspiration from martial arts, break-dancing, the animal world and the dance movements of indigenous peoples, he developed Zuu. It revolves around seven main movements: push, pull, bend, twist, squat, lunge and locomotion. These are incorporated into more than 100 animal moves – although beginners start with about 25 – that work muscles, joints, fascia and ligaments, as well as improving cardiovascular fitness.
Helberg has introduced it to Britain through Virgin Active gyms, and the classes are proving hugely popular. He hopes to bring it to schools too with a Zuu Chimps programme for children.
Zuu needs no equipment and little space, and fits in with the current trend of “functional” training, which aims to train your body for activities performed in daily life.
“It’s quick, low-impact, it tops up your strength but doesn’t bulk you up, and it burns fat and raises your heart rate. You can burn up to 600 calories in a half-hour session, or up to 800 when you get fitter,” Helberg says.
He offers me a master class, alongside two of his trainers. I am daunted, not just by their fitness but by the prospect of doing things I haven’t done since kindergarten – at high speed. We do each movement for 30 seconds, followed by a 10-second pause (for my benefit – as you get fitter, you keep on for 45 seconds).
We start with what seems an innocuous frog squat: legs wide, knees bent, elbows locked inside knees. It’s a little undignified, but fine, at first. Then as the seconds go by the fronts of my thighs start to burn and it’s all I can do not to collapse like a squashed frog. After the 30 seconds we dash back across the room to our starting point.
Helberg assures me the frog squat works wonders by elongating muscles, opening out the hips and alleviating lower back pain. It’s particularly good if you spend most of your waking moments in an office chair. He recommends that clients take a break from their desk and frog-squat for four minutes a day. Why ever not?
There’s barely a pause to catch breath, then it’s on to a bear crawl. On hands and feet, bums in the air, we crawl across the room. While Helberg and the others shoot across the room I lumber like an ancient grizzly. Then we do it again – backwards.
It’s exhausting and I feel clumsy and cumbersome, although it does get slightly easier as I go on. This movement uses every joint in the body, strengthening ligaments, tendons and fascia. But with the weight spread, it has a low impact on the joints and is good on the cardiovascular front too, raising heart rate as effectively as running.
Next we have to leap like gorillas, reaching forward with our hands, then springing the feet forward to land outside the hands. This breaks your normal breathing rhythm, working your diaphragm and raising your heart rate rapidly, just like sprinting.
Perhaps being a snake will be easier. But there’s no lying flat on our bellies. Instead we have to raise our bodies an inch off the floor, rocking the weight back and forth from hands to toes. It strengthens the top half of our bodies and core, but it’s a struggle to keep going for the full minute.
Crawling like an iguana is even tougher as all your body weight rests on two points. Again, it’s good for opening up hips, burning fat and strengthening your core muscles, lengthening and strengthening other muscles. By the end I am shaking with exhaustion.
I thought I was reasonably fit – I run 5km three times a week – but after this beasting I realise how little I push myself normally. Helberg promises that I could increase my upper body strength by 30 per cent in just six weeks by doing three Zuu classes a week. I have compromised and bear-crawl around the garden during my screen breaks, to the bemusement of the dog. Although Zuu is new to Britain, it is not the only workout to use animal moves. Back in 186 BC a Chinese physician named Hua Tuo developed “Exercise of the Five Animals” to promote health and longevity, after studying deer, tigers, bears, apes and birds. Animal moves have long been a staple of children’s gymnastics classes and a workout called Animal Flow is becoming popular in the United States and over here. Despite my initial inhibitions, by the end of my Zuu class I have started to enjoy myself. It’s like playing a children’s party game, only sweatier, and with no jelly and cake afterwards. While it’s hard not to giggle when you’re imitating a bear on rewind, afterwards, I am so tired the only animal I want to mimic is a sloth.
Go ape: Annabel is put through her paces by Nathan Helberg, the Australian founder of the Zuu total fitness workout which is rapidly catching on in this country